A Different Titanic Tragedy

Ships - Best avoided really

You did know the Titanic was a real ship, didn’t you? Laughing Squid did a Twitter-trawl to find people for whom this came as news. Amusing as it is, it’s not so surprising that there are now adults who have no memory of the Titanic from before James Cameron’s film. Those who were five when it came out are twenty now. They’ve grown up in a world where Titanic is, and has always been, the most successful film ever.

And the opposite misconception – that it was the worst tragedy in maritime history – is far more widespread, and every bit as wrong. Believe it or not, it doesn’t come close. Even if you restrict the definition of disaster to accidental losses, it doesn’t appear in the five worst on record. If we include deliberate sinkings such as acts of war and piracy, it’s hardly on the radar.

So why is this the sinking everyone remembers? To be blunt, because it’s a great story. The key factor is that the Titanic had just become the largest ship ever afloat. At once you have a story of hubris; overambitious humans tempting fate is one of the great templates of drama. And to stoke the irony, the owners had unguardedly described it as  “virtually unsinkable”. Then there’s the needlessness of the deaths caused by the under-provision of lifeboats. That gives the story a terrible pathos. And her passengers included some of the richest people in the world, so you have the vital celebrity angle. The rich surviving at the expense of the poor makes it a story about injustice too.

No wonder so many people think it was invented for the cinema. It’s ideal. The first film about it was made within a month! And even before that it was entering folklore as story and song – hundreds and hundreds of songs, including one I remember my grandfather singing. The Titanic was an instant legend.

The actual greatest tragedy at sea? For a single ship, almost certainly the Wilhelm Gustloff, on which at least six times as many lives were lost as aboard the Titanic. Six times. Why is this not the subject of a wildly successful film?

Because we sank it.

Well, “we” if you identify with the Allied side in World War II. Though it was packed to the gunwales – literally – with civilian refugees, it was also carrying Nazi officers and troops retreating from the Russian advance in 1945. No icebergs, no Edwardian frocks. Germans sunk by Soviets as part of a bitter and ruthless war. Tragic, yes. But not in the least romantic. So no multi-Oscar film for the Wilhelm Gustloff and her nine thousand dead.

4 thoughts on “A Different Titanic Tragedy

  1. Hi Richard. There was an interesting documentary on tonight about Titanic. A meteorologist got interested in the story because of witness testament on the weather conditions, described as strange, weird, eerie silence. After long investigation including ship’s logs from the time, he found that the weather conditions created a mirage effect on the sea. This accounts for the nearby ship misreading what it saw and sailing off, the failure of morse lamps, and, particularly, the probability that the iceberg was essentially invisible. Very convincing reading of the tragedy. But, in relation to your point about everyone’s interest in it, one witness said that he couldn’t believe it was just bad luck. He felt there was something he was missing but he didn’t know what. The meteorologist reckons everyone senses that when they hear the story, that something doesn’t quite add up, and we keep looking deeper to find the ‘real’ cause. Naturally he feels he has found the answer, and I was totally convinced by it. I thought you might find that interesting.

    1. Hmm. I suspect that feeling – if ‘everyone’ really does feel it – owes more to the human desire for a better reason than mere carelessness for such a tragedy. Ideally a mysterious, even supernatural, reason. Nothing is more comforting than a mystery. But I don’t think there is much very inexplicable about a ship attempting a speed record striking an iceberg in the dark.

  2. It’s such a perfect story Morgan Robertson wrote the novelization in the book “The Wreck of the Titan or, Futility” published 14 years before the completion of the boat.

    1. Indeed, a rare case of reality imitating art. But it should be mentioned that people always point out the striking similarities and never the striking differences. The Titan was sailing the other way.

      Also it wasn’t the Titan’s maiden voyage. Maybe he thought that would be too melodramatic for a book. As it is; I wouldn’t blame anyone leaving the film for complaining that it wasn’t very realistic.

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